The music in Barenboim’s life never stops but in the West-Eastern Divan, named after a collection of Goethe poems evoking western awareness of eastern culture, it shares the limelight with political activism. He sees the orchestra as a model for dialogue in the Middle East – an example of how to break the wall of hatred between peoples. Its members are drawn not just from Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, but also Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Iran. They share accommodation, food, transport and music desks.
Barenboim himself has taken Palestinian citizenship, a move that, along with his attempts to play Wagner in Israel and his groundbreaking West Bank concert with the Divan in 2005, incenses many fellow Jews. His activism has also been criticised by Palestinians, who argue that dialogue is counterproductive until Israel acknowledges basic Palestinian rights.
Barenboim’s assistant has warned me that “everything is fluid” – a polite way of saying the maestro’s attitude to lunch, like that to rehearsals and performances, is a miracle of improvisation. He is talking to someone I assume to be a colleague but breaks off to acknowledge my arrival, bidding me sit on the chair next to him. “Have you met Patrice Chéreau?” he asks, indicating the distinguished French director, screenwriter and actor seated opposite. I scramble for an appropriate response, murmuring something about my first encounter with Chéreau’s work back in the 1980s.
“But what about Tristan? Did you see Tristan?” interrupts Barenboim, referring to the Wagner opera he and Chéreau produced at La Scala two years ago. Yes, I really liked it, I reply, trying to convince them I am not making up compliments for their benefit. “Why do critics always have to apologise for saying nice things?” asks Barenboim mischievously. The joke is on me but it fulfils its purpose: we all laugh. Chéreau slips away, the room clears and lunch can begin.